North’s top envoy meets with Xi

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North’s top envoy meets with Xi

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, meets with Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party and director of the party’s International Department, in Beijing, China, on Wednesday. [XINHUA]

Senior North Korean official Ri Su-yong met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, signaling a thaw in icy relations between the two nations.

Ri departed from the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Wednesday afternoon and headed to the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, accompanied by 10 black sedans, for a meeting with Xi and other Chinese officials.

Xi and Ri talked for around 30 minutes, and the Chinese leader said that he “hopes related countries can stay calm and exercise restraint and through dialogue and communication safeguard peace and security in the region.” This is the first time Xi held talks with a high-ranking North Korean official since May 2013.

There was particular interest in whether Ri, vice chairman of the central committee of the North’s Workers’ Party, proposed a summit between Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He may have also appealed to Beijing for some relief from international sanctions.

Ri kicked off a surprise three-day visit to China on Tuesday, accompanied by a delegation of some 40 officials in what appeared to be Pyongyang’s attempt to patch up diplomatic relations with its longtime ally and benefactor.

Later that day, the seasoned North Korean diplomat held talks with Song Tao, minister of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department, during which they agreed to bolster bilateral cooperation.

Some North Korea analysts point out that depending on the outcome of this visit, another high-level meeting could follow in order to renew Pyongyang and Beijing’s blood alliance. This could also segue into Kim Jong-un’s first visit to China since he came to power after the death of his father in December 2011.

Ri’s visit is the first by a senior North Korean official since Pyongyang carried out its fourth nuclear test in January.

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, followed by a long-range ballistic missile launch a month later, in violation of United Nations resolutions. In early March, the UN Security Council, through cooperation between the United States and China, unanimously adopted Resolution 2270, implementing the toughest-ever sanctions on Pyongyang.

Last month, North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party held its seventh congress, the first of its kind in nearly four decades, which helped solidify party leadership. Pyongyang also reaffirmed through the congress its intent to continue pursuing its nuclear ambitions in tandem with economic development.

Xi sent a congratulatory message to mark the party congress, which was interpreted as an indication that North Korea would not conduct a fifth nuclear test, despite its threats to do so.

“Communist countries, after they hold a party congress or important party event, send a delegation to other Communist nations to explain it,” a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said on Ri’s visit to Beijing. “North Korea has done this in the past, and since this was the first congress in 36 years, it is natural to do so.”

North Korea has shown through its seventh party congress its intent to escape isolation, the official added, pointing to recent overseas trips by Pyongyang officials. This includes Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, who visited Equatorial Guinea; Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the Workers’ Party central committee, who went to Cuba; and Ri’s current visit to China.

“This is a reflection of North Korea’s diplomatic crisis,” the South Korean official said. “However, no matter how much North Korea makes diplomatic efforts, if it continues to possess nuclear arms and continues to attempt to enhance its nuclear capability, it will only become further isolated, and we plan to make it so.”

Ri, a former foreign minister and former guardian to Kim Jong-un and his sister Kim Yo-jong during their studies in Switzerland in the 1990s, is believed by South Korean intelligence to be in charge of Pyongyang’s diplomatic affairs, following the death of chief diplomat Kang Sok-ju.

It is not unusual to see a pattern of Pyongyang conducting a nuclear test, followed by China’s participation in sanctions against North Korea, a period of strained relations, and then a special envoy being sent to China as the tension eases. This can lead to a revival of bilateral relations and resumption of dialogue.

Such was the case following North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, followed by then-Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pyongyang in October 2009, where he met with the late leader Kim Jong-il and marked the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

In May 2013, Choe Ryong-hae, now part of the five-member presidium of the political bureau of the Workers’ Party central committee, visited China as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy and met with Xi, conveying a letter from the North Korean leader.

Choe was the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit Beijing since Kim came into power in December 2011. The trip came around 90 days after North Korea’s third nuclear test earlier that year on Feb. 12. Choe again visited Beijing last September to observe a military parade commemorating the end of World War II.

Ri’s visit comes as the latest UN Security Council resolution on Pyongyang marks 90 days since its passing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters Tuesday on Ri’s trip, “As important neighbors to each other, we hope to develop normal, friendly and cooperative relations with the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].”

Ri’s visit also comes ahead of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue next week, during which Washington plans on encouraging Beijing to exert pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Daniel Russel, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters Tuesday that the United States would like to discuss with Beijing “the practical question of how to ensure that the pressure that is built on an international basis on North Korea culminates in the outcomes that we want.”

This outcome, he said, is “not to bring North Korea to its knees, but to its senses.” He elaborated that Washington is looking for a “North Korean agreement to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“That’s not unconditional surrender,” Russel said.

The bilateral strategic dialogue, the eighth of its kind, is scheduled for June 6 and 8 in Beijing, and Russel said that it will serve as a platform to “speed up” such an outcome.

The chief negotiators of the six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea - Kim Hong Kyun, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, his U.S. counterpart Sung Kim and Japanese counterpart Kimihiro Ishikane - held a meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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